Shakespeare And The Nature Of Women English Literature Essay

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In Macbeth, we witness the reversal of role and the dynamics of power between Macbeth and Lady Macbeth. The renaissance period considered dominance, authority and power as masculine traits, yet in Macbeth it is Lady Macbeth who is much more dominant than her husband and she is the main source of power in their relationship. She takes control and demonstrates this power by constantly taunting Macbeth. She insults him by saying 'are you a man' and constantly emasculates him in order to get what she wants, which is for Macbeth to kill Duncan and take his throne. This way of persuading a man through taunting and reducing his dignity is also evident in Othello. Iago plants false ideas in Brabantio's mind telling him that he is losing his power over his daughter. He warns him saying that 'Your heart is burst, you have lost half your soul; Even now, now, very now, an old black ram is tupping your white ewe. Arise, arise!' (Oth I. i. 88-90). This shows the importance for a man to carry out his duties but also clarifies that the duty of a man is to look after his woman. It shows that men will strive to keep their honour and dignity and carrying out their duty is part of their pride as this is the norm of society.

Shakespeare undermines women since they lack physical power; however, it does not mean that they lack logic. In 'Shakespeare and the nature of women' () Gabriel Eden identifies two ways in which Macbeth is persuaded by women. While Lady Macbeth persuades through reducing Macbeth as a man, the witches work on his image as a king. The latter shows the desire of men for attaining power. To encourage him into action Lady Macbeth welcomes manhood herself and cries out to be 'unsexed'. This shows her frustration at Macbeth for not carrying out his role as a man. However, this is just words of the tongue, she cannot hold back her nature as a woman, and the violence destroys her. Macduff warned her about this saying 'o gentle lady tis not for you to hear what I can speak' . However, she wanted to be more than a woman and as she stepped out of her roles as a woman, she became less than one. Similarly, Macbeth is 'unman' since he is trying too hard to be more than what he is and what he is capable of doing. His wife takes on his roles, making him the epitome of femininity.

Lady Macbeth tells her husband that only after killing Duncan will he be 'more than what you were, you would be so much more than a man'. The constant pressure from Lady Macbeth forces Macbeth to kill Duncan. It is only after the murder of Duncan where Macbeth claims 'I am a man again'. Lady Macbeth's hunger for power is atypical for women during the renaissance period. Eden further states that women were seen inferior physically thus not able to fight. However, a man who refused to fight is weak and cowardly. Romeo scolds himself for not fighting Tybalt and says 'o sweet Juliet, thy beauty hath made me effeminate' act 3 scene 1. 112.

The witches in Macbeth are supped to be women however, they do not behave like one. Banquo says, "You should be women, And yet your beards forbid me to interpret .That you are so" (I.2.45-47). Their facial hair represent their power in the dealings of the male dominated society.

Although men were seen as the protectors of women, they were also seen as their possessors. Before a girl married she was in control by her father but after marriage, this was the role of her husband. Thus, in Rome and Juliet Capulet says to his daughter 'and you'll be mine, I'll give you to my friend' almost as if she is some sort of property. Women were degraded constantly in this way and Shakespeare challenges these ideologies by allowing his characters to confront those who domineer them. Juliet objects to her father's wish and marries Romeo instead, and faces the consequences. Similarly, this relationship between father and daughter is further emphasised in Othello . Desdemona manages to break through the society's confine of male domination by choosing her own husband but she further accentuates my earlier point that after marriage a woman is subjected to her husband. We witness Desdemona's answer to her father when he asks who she owes most to and she replies 'to you I am bound for life and education....I am hitherto your daughter. But here is my lord' [2] 

Desdemona's fascination indicates her desire to break the claustrophobic patriarchal confine. Adventure and freedom being male speciality, she first wishes that 'heaven has made her such a man' (act 1 scene 3163) so she is able to do the same but then later began to love Othello 'for the dangers I have passed'. (act 1 scene 3, 167) She denies femininity and desire to be a man so that she can do what men can do. [3] 

Shakespeare further illustrates the ideology that women are inferior through his male characters. In Romeo and Juliet Sampson says 'women being the weaker vessels, are ever thrust to the wall; therefore I will push Montague's men from the wall, and thrust his maids to the wall." This quote portrays that women are the weaker of the two sexes, thus they are only used for sex and to 'thrust' to the wall. It also indicates that it was typical for men to talk about women this way. Similarly, In The Taming of The Shrew Kate's final speech is filled with stereotypes. After she has been 'tamed' by Petruchio and learns to be obedient she explains that the husband is 'thy lord, thy life, thy keeper, Thy head, thy sovereign; one that cares for thee, And for thy maintenance commits his body To painful labor both by sea and land'. This clearly affirms the ideas seen in the Social Role Theory whereby, men take a more active and occupational role.

The Social Role Theory indicates that the behaviour of men and women is shaped by the stereotypes. In order for men and women to conform to these stereotypes, they develop certain traits. Men for example learn to be more aggressive, independent, assertive and competent. These align to their active roles. [4] This idea of men acting a certain way to conform to the stereotypes of society is portrayed in Measure for Measure through the character of Angelo. Society mocked the Duke because he was too lenient as a ruler and so when Angelo took power he became strict and showed no mercy, as he wants to be depicted as someone who is carrying out his duty as a leader. He shows that he has the power and that he is independent and he will do whatever he wills because he is able to. He shows no mercy to Claudio. Isabella refers to him as "Man, proud man, Drest in a little brief authority". (17-18) In other words Angelo is behaving the way he is because of the expectation of a ruler by society. Joespech Pleck (1976) states that boys and men are pressured to fulfil the standard of masculinity. [5] If Angelo did not carry out his duty then he would not be seen as a man and would be mocked.

Shakespeare shows that men thrive on power and they are domineering over women. As mentioned earlier Macbeth is persuaded by the witches and willing to kill for the reign of power. His actions are controlled by the selfishness and eagerness to attain the title of Thane of Cawdor. Similarly, in Hamlet, Claudius wants to take the role of king form his brother Hamlet and will go as far as poisoning him in order to attain it. Shakespeare also portrays that men abuse their powers in order to achieve what they want. This is evident in Measure for Measure whereby, Angelo uses his power and gives Isabella an ultimatum. Either she sleeps with him or her brother dies. He knows that he can black mail her and even if Isabella was to speak of it to someone else no one will believe her. He says 'Who will believe thee, Isabel? My unsoil'd name, the austereness of my life, My vouch against you, and my place i' the state, Will so your accusation overweigh'. In other words he is in power he is the one society will believe and he abuses this power to blackmail Isabel.

Similarly, Iago manipulates his wife in carrying out evil deeds. He forces Emilia to take Desdemona's handkerchief, and being the obedient wife, she does it whilst completely ignorant of Iago's plan. Emilia is strong and defends Desdemona

She has cynical view on marriage and men. She tells Desdemona about the faults of husbands. But I do think it is their husbands' faults

If wives do fall: say that they slack their duties

And pour our treasures into foreign laps;

Or else break out in peevish jealousies,

Throwing restraint upon us; or say they strike us,

Or scant our former having in despite;

But she is later killed by her own husband for doing so

Women are treated unfairly and the way men treat the women in the plays I have discussed is shocking. But Shakespeare is clearly showing society's attitude towards and women and it shows that women were treated unjustly.

Measure for Measure focuses on the notion of the double standard and emphasises the importance of chastity. Eden (page 53) states that there was a clear double standard during the renaissance period 'A man who is unchaste loses nothing in the eyes of the world. A woman who is unchaste is nothing'. This is evident in Measure for Measure. 'Chastity' is such an important virtue for a woman that Isabella would rather her brother die than give up her body to Angelo. She says that it is 'Better it were a brother died at once, Than that a sister, by redeeming him, Should die for ever'. In other words if she loses her virginity then she is nothing. Society has conditioned women to believe that chastity is everything. However, society showed a double standard in that if a man was unchaste, he remained courageous and honest and lost nothing. Eden goes on to say that if one women was unchaste then all women were seen as unchaste. Women were not judged individually but were blamed due to another woman's fault. For example, Antigonous tries to defend Hermione since his wife and daughters name would be jeopardised. He says 'ay, every dram of a woman's flesh is false, If she be'. (The winter's tale Act 2 scene 1.33) We also note the same attitude in Othello. Othello comes to the conclusion that if Desdemona 'be not honest, chaste and true, there's no man happy: the purest of their wives Is foul as slander' act 4: 2 . 17

When Angelo calls women 'frail' Desdemona retaliates saying that 'Nay, call us ten times frail,  For we are soft as our complexions are,  And credulous to false prints' Desdemona is strong willed and is able defend herself. In doing so she steps outside of her role as a woman, she breaks her decorum and Angelo tells her to 'be that you are, that is woman; if you be more, you are none' (act 2 scene 4 150) in other words she is acting like a man.

In relation to Renaissance expectations of female behaviour, Katherine is at one extreme in that she resists against societies expectations of women. She is independent foul mouthed, unapproachable and violent. When Patruchio fixes their wedding date on a Sunday she becomes irritated and says 'I'll see thee hanged on Sunday first'. It is very unnatural for women to speak this way. In addition, the use of the term 'thee' is disrespectful as this term was used to address those of lower status, but also to show a contrast in mood and feeling. In this case, it amplifies her anger.

Certain characteristics were also regarded as make traits or female traits. For example the act of crying was seen as a feminine quality regardless the fact that both men and women cry. In hamlet when Laertes learns that his sister has died, his response is 'the women will be out', the 'women', referring to his tears.